September 22, 2017
With an increasing population and a changing climate, the need to invent alternative ways of producing food is more urgent than ever.
Humans eat a lot of meat.
On average, people in industrial countries like the United States eat just shy of 100 kilograms of meat each year. Consumption in the developing world, where people eat around a quarter of the meat Americans do, is growing too. By 2030, the average person is expected to eat just under 50 kilograms of meat per year, 10% more than today. By 2050, the world’s appetite for meat will have increased by 70%.
Having a hankering for hot dogs or a proclivity for pork comes at a price. With the planet’s population projected to hit nine billion by 2050, experts suggest that the current means of food production will soon struggle to keep up with demand. From an environmental perspective, too, meat is very costly.
Nearly a third of the world’s land is used to raise livestock, and a third of the world’s grain is used to feed them. Farm animals guzzle 8% of the world’s water supply, and produce as many greenhouse gasses as all the world’s cars, trains, ships, and planes put together. In three decades, experts suspect that emissions related to agriculture and food production will account for half of the planet’s available ‘carbon budget’.
Raising livestock has been proven to cause significant damage to the environment. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Scientists have found that cutting down meat consumption would massively help the fight against climate change. If everyone on the planet were to become a vegetarian, emissions would fall by 63%. If we were all to become vegans, emissions would tumble by roughly 70%.
Yet the most ardent carnivores are unlikely to be persuaded to give up their meat, even when faced with a sea of science and statistics. Soon, however, they may not have to. Across the world, scientists and entrepreneurs are coming together to forge a solution to the world’s meat production crisis. Increasingly, meat-eaters all over the planet can have their burger and eat it too.
That is the idea behind Impossible Foods
, a company which is trying to revolutionise the way we produce meat by creating a plant-based burger which sizzles, bleeds and tastes like the real thing.
Impossible Foods “wants to solve the world’s greatest problem,” says David Lee, the company’s chief operating and financial officer. “In our minds, that is producing delicious beef, chicken and dairy in a way that doesn’t use the large amounts of resources that meat from animals does, and in a way that the meat-eater would enjoy trying and eating.”
The company’s flagship product, the Impossible Burger, uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions than a normal beefburger. It is constructed from wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and heme – a molecule which makes meat bleed, smell and taste meaty.
The Impossible Burger, as sampled by The World Weekly. Tyrone Barton/The World Weekly
“With nearly 10 billion people on the planet by 2050, and an increasing per-capita demand for meat and dairy,” Mr. Lee told The World Weekly, “we simply cannot make sufficient craveable meat and dairy out of the old technology. It’s terribly urgent.”
Thus far, Impossible Foods have enjoyed considerable success. Just over a year ago, Mr. Lee explains, the company had one customer: acclaimed chef David Chang of American restaurant chain Momofuku. “Here we sit with nearly 50 locations, expanding to several hundred over the next 12 to 18 months. We are seeing a surge in demand.”
Companies like Impossible Foods are gaining a significant amount of buzz not only among meat-eaters, but in Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs and investors are eyeing the food industry as ripe for disruption due to its inherent inefficiency and unsustainability. Impossible Foods, for example, has received funding from the likes of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.
That demand, Mr. Lee suggests, has less to do with the Impossible Burger’s ethical benefits than it does with the simple fact that it tastes good. In one chain marketing the burger, over 70% of consumers are meat-eaters, and three-quarters have come back for seconds. “People just want to eat great food,” Mr. Lee explained.
At The World Weekly, we are no exception. We dispatched one of our reporters to sample the Impossible Burger in New York, and his review was glowing. “It could easily pass for actual meat,” he said. “It had a smoky meat flavour and a chewy consistency. I would easily have it again as a guilt-free meal. Four stars.”
While the success of Impossible Foods is encouraging, there is more than one way to cook a meat-free burger.
In 2013, the world’s media gathered in London to watch the cooking of the world’s first hamburger, made of meat grown from scratch in a laboratory by a team of Dutch scientists from Maastricht University. The price was eye-watering – a single 140-gram patty cost $330,000 to make – and the taste, “like meat” but “not that juicy”, was underwhelming. Nonetheless, onlookers hailed the start of a bold new chapter in food production.
Dutch scientist Mark Post holds the first burger created by stem cells harvested from a living cow in 2013. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Others have since followed suit. In 2016, an American company called Memphis Meats fried up the world’s first lab-made meatball. This one cost less (weighing in at $18,000 per pound), and tasters claimed they barely noticed a difference between it and a real meatball.
For the layman, the science behind growing meat in a lab is complicated. The most advanced method for doing so was pioneered by Dr. Mark Post, who leads the Maastricht University team. It involves taking stem cells from two live cows, a process which does no harm to the animal.
Those cells are then multiplied a trillionfold and merged into myotubes (artificial muscle fibres), each less than 3 millimetres long. They are then wrapped around hubs of agarose, a gel-like polymer drawn from seaweed, and fed a steady diet of amino acids, sugars and fats. Muscle cells naturally contract and relax, so the myotubes eventually grow into rings of muscle tissue, which are then cut free to create a strand. Dr. Post’s groundbreaking burger used 20,000 such strands.
Nonetheless, there are still some major hurdles to overcome before scientists can claim to have fully revolutionised the way we produce food.
For many, there is still a stigma around eating meat grown in a laboratory. Unlike the Impossible Burger, petri-dish beef still carries a certain ‘ick-factor’ that may put off potential customers. Given the rigorous efforts of major restaurant chains like McDonald’s to remove genetically modified produce from their menus and the increasing demand for organic, ethically-produced meat, it will be a hard label to shift.
For Paul Mozdziak, an expert in muscle biology from North Carolina State University, central to overcoming that hurdle is companies coming up with a marketable product. “If they have a product within the next three to five years,” Professor Mozdziak told TWW, “I think the industry will trundle along. It’s time for people to really produce.”
Cost remains a major stumbling block in this regard. While Dr. Post insists that lab-made beefburgers will be on the market for $10 in the near future, that remains to be seen. As of yet, scientists are yet to figure out how to scale up in-vitro meat production to such an extent that it becomes readily accessible and affordable.
China plans to cut its meat consumption by 50% by 2030. Jerome Favre/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nonetheless, some appear willing to take a leap of faith. This week it emerged that China has signed a $300 million deal to purchase lab-grown meat from a trio of Israeli companies, a move which onlookers say could open the floodgates for Chinese investment in clean food technology. Beijing plans to cut its citizens’ meat consumption by half by 2030.
From an environmental point of view, and an ethical one too, it seems a risk worth taking. A single sample of stem cells, experts reckons, could yield 20,000 tonnes of ‘cultured beef’. That is enough to make 175 million quarter-pounders, which would normally require the raising and slaughtering of 440,000 cattle.
The innovation is not lacking. But there is still a long way to go before alternative methods of meat production become truly mainstream. The sooner they do, the better off our planet will be.